Fred Rodgers once said “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”
Over the last few weeks Queenslanders and our cousins in NSW in Australia have not only seen scary things on the news they have literally experienced it due to Cyclone Debbie and its effects. And our Red Cross helpers have been there from members to volunteers and from staff to supporters.
It was a Friday night when I got the call “can you help us in our operations centre tomorrow?” and like Red Cross people across the state there was no hesitation and I was at Humanity place the following morning at 8am. I had been activated once before due to a fire on Russell Island but this was different. This was a disaster on a much larger scale. The centre was full of people. “Can you be deputy Opps?” I was asked. I nervously accepted not even sure what I’d be doing. But now was not the time for too many questions. Many people were giving new things a go. It was all “hands in”. Immediately we felt a sense of trust in our leadership team whose training for such events kicked in straight away.
Learning by doing should never be underrated and soon I was in the thick of it assisting the operations manager and building our Ops team for the coming days. We were responsible for looking after our people on the ground ensuring they had the tools to assist and ensuring we had the right people at the right time in the right places.
As we got stuck in I was amazed at what occurred around me. Very few people knew each other on my first day. People had arrived from further afield in Queensland and from interstate. Strangers on day one, we were soon bonding with our mission to help the many thousands suddenly made vulnerable in our community. We were starting at the crack of dawn and finishing late together. Time did not matter and by the end of the five day deployment we would have done anything for each other with new friendships being forged, friendships that will last a lifetime.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. There were times of frustrations. A printer breaking down, a mobile dying, a computer freezing would test your patience as would a miscommunication or a look taken wrongly. But continuous team meetings and debriefing kept us grounded. What mattered most though was how people were treating each other. A thumbs up from across the room or a heartfelt hug from a team member got people through the testing times. There was a sense that we knew that any challenge we faced paled into insignificance when compared to the challenges our community were experiencing.
On the final day of this deployment I led a team of 15 volunteers into the field for outreach into the Beenleigh and Logan areas. This was the most humbling experience of all. I was now with volunteers in the field. We came face to face with people impacted by devastation. Some people had been cut off from the rest of the world for days. Some had lost power for days and had lost all their food. As we drove down one street with community recovery officers I looked with shock at the houses where their appliances were now rubbish on their footpaths. Washing machines, clothes, mattresses and toys lined the street. I could see where the water had reached on the lampposts and street signs – twice my height!
The resilience of the people struck me the most and their gratefulness. The other thing that struck me instantly was their reaction to seeing the Red Cross. Apprehensive as we pulled up in our car, as soon as they saw our emblem you could see they relaxed. They knew we were the helpers. I held hands with mothers and their kids. Spoke to dads out fixing their yards. As we all returned to our base, volunteers brought their stories with them. Raghu who had just commenced as a volunteer told us that at one house a woman sat with him and cupping his face with her hands had cried for five minutes without a word being exchanged. Afterwards she thanked him for allowing her to do so as she had been holding her emotion in for days.
Being in the field, more than anything I’ve ever done at Red Cross, showed me why we do what we do. It made sense of everything we do – the work and long hours in the operation centre, the training our volunteers undertake, the dedication of our members and volunteers, the trauma teddies and why we work in Voluntary Service. This was our Power of Humanity and it deepened my commitment to the Red Cross.
The deployment came at the same time I was starting a new team of nine volunteers at our volunteer hub. Suddenly the response to this disaster became more important. And wouldn’t you know it – all 9 volunteers made themselves available to Emergency Services instead and continue to assist in the operations centre and in the field.
On Saturday I commence another deployment. My team will join me again. Members and volunteers and staff will join the next wave of helpers. I realise now that nothing differentiates us. We are the helpers. There are still so many helpers. The world is a better place because of them!